Listening #6

I'll spare you my thoughts on the matter—they're guessable anyway—and simply say that the war with Iraq has given me and my family the jitters, just as it seems to have done with millions of other people. But rather than giving 10 more dollars to Henkel Consumer Adhesives, my wife and I have taken a different tack: We made up a Road Box. A Road Box is a cardboard box full of things for us to take from our home if we have to leave in a hurry. We keep it near the door that leads to the garage.

Our Road Box contains bottled water and certain foodstuffs with very long shelf lives—canned peaches, canned tuna, Twinkies, those sorts of things. There are also Band-Aids and Tylenol, a good portable radio, two flashlights, and a lot of batteries. Those are necessities.

There are also a few things that aren't necessities, and I'm looking at them now. There's a book of children's stories my parents gave me new in 1959. There are about a dozen photos I wish never to lose, mostly of my mother and father, my sister, my wife, and my daughter. And there are 10 record albums—all on CD, actually, if only for the sake of portability.

I spent an entire afternoon choosing those 10 albums, and I thought it would be fun to share them with you—not because they're tied to this or that geopolitical event, necessarily, but because the reasons different people might choose one work of art over another are the sorts of things I find fascinating: What makes me think this piece of music is something of lasting value, while that one isn't? And so forth. Also, I just plain like lists.

1) The Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music, Vols.1-3: Also known informally as "the Harry Smith box" after the man who compiled these tracks in the 1950s from his own 78rpm records, this collection of pre-war recordings preserves some of the best work of American artists both well-known (the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson) and obscure (G.B. Grayson, the wonderful Chubby Parker). Perhaps most interesting of all, the Anthology turns out to have been the single glorious achievement of a man who in fact had set out to do something else (Smith fancied himself a filmmaker); as such, it is echt Amerikanisch. In its original LP release this collection is also said to have influenced countless young folksingers, including...

2) Bob Dylan: The Genuine Basement Tapes, Vols.1-5: You could almost think of this as The Anthology of American Folk Music, Vols.4-8, so perfectly does Dylan capture both the fatalism and the absurd humor of what music writer Greil Marcus calls "the old, weird America." This five-CD bootleg set, which in fact inspired an entire book by Marcus (Invisible Republic, Henry Holt & Co., 1997), contains a few Dylan originals and lots of ear-opening covers: Nothing could prepare you for the way Dylan transforms Ian and Sylvia's "The French Girl" into a shambling masterpiece of love and loss—certainly not the tepid performance and embarrassingly bad string arrangement of the original. Also included are some originals by The Band, most of whose members appear on all the songs, and whose organist, Garth Hudson, recorded all these tracks. This bootleg is findable although generally rather expensive—but I wouldn't be surprised to see a legitimate version of The Genuine Basements Tapes released some day.

3) The Beatles: Anthology 1: How can I choose just one Beatles album? And how will I ever explain to my daughter how important they were—and how clever, and original, and how fun? The Beatles were the great magicians of my youth, and I'm no longer able to say whether they're important to me for that reason or for the sheer indisputable genius of their work, although I suspect the truth is closer to the latter.

4) Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: The Early Years, 1940-1947: I wanted to bring a bluegrass album, for my own enjoyment and so my daughter might some day understand the other direction those early American folk songs got pulled toward. I considered the first, eponymous Doc Watson album. I considered Tony Rice's stripped-down masterpiece, Church Street Blues. I considered any of a number of Norman Blake albums. And I considered my beloved copy of the instrumental-only album Appalachian Swing, by the Kentucky Colonels—all before settling on this solid collection by the father of bluegrass himself. Every song on The Early Years crackles with Monroe's complex personality—the good-natured swagger of a man who knew he was creating something completely new, yet whose insecurities kept his ego more or less at bay.

5) J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations—A State of Wonder (Glenn Gould's 1955 and 1981 recordings): John Marks has already written about this album, more completely than I have the room for and more intelligently than I have the gift for. Suffice to say that when I got my reviewer's copy from Sony last year, I was awestruck by the new presentation of the 1981 recording in particular, to the extent that I sat and listened to the disc three times in a row before I could even leave the room.

But A State of Wonder isn't even my "favorite" Bach: That would be...

6) J.S. Bach: Suites for Solo Cello (Mstislav Rostropovich): It's hard for me to imagine a "purer" art than this—the most simple, direct, and perpetually revealing distillation of human intellect and emotion into music I've ever heard. I bow to the taste of listeners who prefer other performances, suggesting only that this music truly does belong in every thinking person's home (or, as the case may be, cardboard box).

7) Beethoven: Symphony 9 (Wilhelm Furtwängler, Orchestra & Choir of the 1951 Bayreuth Festival): My preferred recording of one of the 19th century's two greatest symphonic works.

8) Mahler: Symphony 2 (Gilbert Kaplan, London Symphony Orchestra): The other one.

9) Chopin: Piano Sonata 3, Waltzes & Mazurkas (Witold Malcuzynski, piano): I have no weighty, meaningful reason for this recommendation, which is simply a collection of music I like by my favorite Chopin interpreter.

10) Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem (Fritz Lehmann, Berlin Philharmonic): I remember listening to this a lot in the days immediately after September 11, 2001. Something tells me I'm not done with it yet.

If anything, this list is more calculated, overintellectualized, and just plain serious than it ought to be, given that selecting music is usually a very random thing for me: There may be some wisdom in the idea of throwing the whole thing out and picking 10 different albums with my hands over my eyes. Also, jazz fans will be horrified to note the lack of same on this list—and it's true that, even though there's some good jazz in my collection, that's a music I have yet to connect with in a big way, although I keep going back and trying, as I used to have to do with Mahler. Still, I feel compelled to point out that the near-even split between classical and nonclassical albums in my Road Box was happenstance—I didn't even notice it until half an hour ago. And, yes, I see it now: Beatles. Brahms. Beethoven. Band. Bach. Bluegrass. Weird.